Tracing The Origins Of Danny Boy

How an Englishman helped turn an Irish melody into a world-famous song.

Binevenagh, County Derry/Londonderry. cc-by-sa/2.0© Albert Bridge. Cropped from source.

     By Anne Ku

The tune known as Londonderry Air long preceded the song Danny Boy, which was published in 1913. Yet today listeners recognize the music as Danny Boy, and not of the numerous other songs and hymns set to the same melody. Why were the lyrics of Danny Boy able to withstand the test of time and its competitors for this tune? Various books, studies, and TV documentaries help to paint a holistic picture of the song’s history and evolution.

The story of Danny Boy spans three distinct periods in music making and dissemination: the oral tradition of Irish folk musicians, the proliferation of sheet music for domestic piano playing, and artist recordings and broadcasts.

In the 19th and earlier centuries, Irish musicians travelled from town to town playing the music of their ancestors or creating their own tunes. None of this was recorded or notated until concerted efforts were made by music scholars to actively collect and publish for preservation.

The tune we know today as Danny Boy first appeared in the 1855 publication The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, arranged for piano. The melody had been contributed by Jane Ross, a collector of Irish melodies from County Londonderry, as an anonymous air. That she did not reveal the source has added to the tune’s mystique, though descendants of a blind fiddler called Jimmy McCurry have claimed that he was the musician who played it to her. Whatever the truth of this, Ross’ tune acquired the name Londonderry Air when the Irish poet Katharine Tynan Hinkson composed the words of Irish Love Song to the melody in 1894.

In his 1979 article New Dates for Old Songs 1766–1803, Hugh Shields points to similarities to an older tune called A Young Man’s Dream, published in Bunting’s The Ancient Music of Ireland in 1796. This used a 3/4 time signature more common to Irish airs, rather than the 4/4 of Ross’ melody. In a major study The Provenance of the Londonderry Air, Brian Audley analysed these tunes to show resemblance and an attribution of lineage. He also notes that that by the year 1923, more than 80 lyrics had been set to the melody.

Writing in The Musical Quarterly in 1920, Annie Patterson attributed the growing interest in this tune to several factors. The composer Sir Hubert Parry had praised the melody in his 1896 book The Evolution Of The Art Of Music, saying that ‘as a simple emotional type’ it was ‘one of the most perfect in existence’. Around the same time, Gaelic culture festivals in Ireland were encouraging composers to put traditional melodies into four-part arrangements and classical forms. Percy Grainger made several piano and orchestral arrangements of Londonderry Air, which charmed the public.

Given the song’s Irish origins and associations, it is ironic that the words to Danny Boy were composed by an Englishman. Frederic E. Weatherly was a barrister and King’s Counsel, but he also wrote over 3000 lyrics, half of which were published as songs. A well-known character who mixed in fashionable circles, he was often invited to pen words for special occasions. Late in life, his regular broadcasts on BBC radio about his life and songs led to his nickname ‘the grand old man of song’.

Frederic Weatherly.

In a 2013 book, Weatherly’s great-grandson Anthony Mann described how the words of Danny Boy had originally been set to a different tune, without success. Though accounts differ as to the precise circumstances, Weatherly had encountered the Londonderry Air via his sister-in-law, who lived in America. He recalled that:

I had never heard the melody or even heard of it […] It so happened that I had written in March of 1910 a song called Danny Boy and re-written it in 1911. By lucky chance it only required a few alterations to make it fit that beautiful melody.

The song was published by Boosey & Co. in 1913. When war broke out the following year, English opera singer Elsie Griffin popularised Weatherly’s song with the British troops in France. The German-American contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink became the first to record it in 1915. In Stories Behind The World’s Best Loved Songs, Max Cryer argues that Schumann-Heink’s version ‘influenced nearly 200 artists to make recordings of the song, long before recordings became electrical.’

The spread of the gramophone and wireless radio enabled Danny Boy to move swiftly overseas and gain worldwide appreciation. The song acquired particular resonance through the convergence of the rise of Irish nationalism, mass Irish emigration, and the world wars.

In the 1940s, Hollywood embraced Danny Boy in film. In the 1946 romantic comedy Because Of Him it is sung in a crucial scene. The same year, a film about a retired war service dog called Danny Boy featured the melody in the soundtrack.

In the following decades many different artists have brought Danny Boy into the charts, including the Glenn Miller Band, Bing Crosby, and Andy Williams. A 1996 TV documentary on the song featured a host of musicians including Shane McGowan, Eric Clapton, Sinead O’Connor and Van Morrison. Johnny Cash made his performance personal by prefacing it with a story of a Danny in his own life. Elvis Presley lauded it as ‘written by angels’, and it was among the selection of music played at his funeral. For the mourning of personal loss this tune has proven particularly powerful – hymn versions of the Londonderry Air were sung at services for the untimely deaths of both Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy. And as a 2013 BBC documentary about the song showed, Danny Boy gave solace to New York firefighters as they grieved their colleagues who were killed in the September 11th attacks, many of whom were Irish-American.

It may be that Weatherly’s fame through his BBC broadcasts encouraged the widespread adoption of his lyrics to this tune. But a crucial factor in its success is surely how the relationship between Danny Boy and the singer remains tantalisingly unspecified. Danny might be a lover, brother, friend, or son. This flexibility makes the song applicable to a wide range of human sentiments and situations.

The universal themes in Weatherley’s words have also enabled Danny Boy to transcend Ireland’s political and sectarian divisions. Although Weatherly had never visited Ireland, in his autobiography he acknowledged that Danny Boy ‘is sung all over the world by Sinn Feiners and Ulstermen alike’. Over a century later, Danny Boy has become an unofficial anthem for the Irish, a symbol of Irish diaspora, and an enduring song of love and loss.

Anne Ku was born in Brunei and raised in Okinawa, Japan. She began taking piano lessons at age eight, and obtained a degree in composition and teaching diploma in piano from Utrecht Conservatory. Thereafter she taught music at University of Hawaii Maui College for a number of years. Her official website has links to her blogs about cultural economics, behind-the-scenes stories of her piano guitar duo, and her latest passion – the ukulele.